His long deft fingers probe and knead. The body underneath them is petite, well-fleshed, unclad, its olive-colored skin betraying flabbiness here and there, its legs a trifle stunted, buttocks bulbous, shoulders slender, its vintage not so young but far from old. Gillian has solicited this massage, which Morgan tenders—detachedly, if the truth be known. He makes her jump—a nerve. The tension he has zeroed in on, eases with his stroking, with his fondling, with his pampering, which inspires a fleeting urge; a muffled groan escapes the pillow's tangled mass of curls, a halo of them sprawling, spreading out in all directions, reflecting, in their twists and turns, the periodic pain that Morgan (inadvertently?) inflicts.

"Good Christ, you're killing me!"

"Stop fighting it."

"Well, be a bit more gentle, will you?"

His intellect ignores her; instinct leads him to the knots, pressing points that soothe her so-called suffering as by magic. Her trust, despite complaints, is absolute.

"So talk to me. Distract me. Tell me more about this woman. Sounds as if—Michelle's her name?—has maybe got the hots."

"You mean, for me?"

"Which you rebuffed, of course?" She turns but cannot see him; imagining his flush, she answers for him. "Sure you did."

"I suppose you'd rather I'd had her on the spot?"

"If you desired her. Did you, Morgan?"

"No."

"You sure? You weren't the least bit tempted? Aren't her tits like 'ripened melons'? Aren't her nipples 'puckers of desire'? OUCH! Ease up!"

Another sore spot? Morgan prods it firmly. Cradling Gillian's calf, he works his thumb, in a clockwise motion, allowing both his mind and eye to drift.

The bedroom walls are dense with theatre play bills, prints, and posters: Sarah Bernhardt, Jane Avril, and Isadora Duncan, mingle with a host of snapshots, Beatles to Baryshnikov, Olivier to the phiz of Woody Allen. Clothes are 'strewn': piled in corners, hung on hangers, draped on racks and doorknobs, spilling out from trunks, and chests, and open dresser drawers. Cosmetics crowd the night stand (among them a stuffed animal). Books, half-read, are tossed with covers splayed like fallen birds—feminist journals and magazines keeping them company.

Morgan's things are nowhere to be seen. They occupy a single closet, boxed, his bags unpacked. The house where they, and he, reside—and have for eight plus years—belongs, adobe brick by brick, to Gillian. Morgan is a guest who has not left (not yet; not ever?) who works at part-time jobs to keep himself in pocket money, while writing poems he never sells and shares with a precious few, reluctant to pronounce himself a writer.

"I never read that poem to you."

"You did. You read them all."

Most, is true; not all. His hands, which linger on her backbone, detect a subtle flinch. The poem at issue might have been considered pornographic in expressing his attraction. It had later been destroyed. Gillian must have found it in the interim.

The phone rings.

"Shit."

Her pique is false; the bell has saved her. Morgan always answers ringing telephones (a quirk), often with facetious salutations.

"Artemis Retreat: convalescent home for fallen archers. May I help you?"

Gillian's smile is weary; Morgan's quips have grown routine. He waits for either a voice he knows, or a whoops-wrong-number click... gets the click and curtly drops the receiver.

"Should I turn?"

He nods.

She shifts to a supine posture, Morgan's rub resuming, focusing on her wrists and palms and slender (ring-free) fingers, triggering warm sensations that traverse her arms, her breasts, inciting Gillian's patented, guttural purr.

When first he had heard this sound he found it wondrously arousing. A panther or a jaguar, was his auditory image, for an utterance Gillian made (and makes) before (and after) sex, inspiring, in her partner(s), an uncivilized excitement... reduced, of late in Morgan, to a shrug.

Once again, the telephone interrupts.

"I'll get it this time."

Morgan's touch...

"Hello."

... goes lax...

"I'm fine. Much better, thank you."

... evincing disaffection...

"No, I've stayed in bed all morning."

... halting altogether...

"Under doctor's orders, yes."

... withdrawing.

Gillian claps her palm to the mouthpiece.

"No; don't stop. I won't be long. My headache's almost gone." She shifts her hand, attends again to the caller. "So, how the hell are you? It seems like ages."

Morgan squeezes...

"Yes, yes, yes, I've heard all that. We maybe could have lunch?"

... pinioning her ankle...

"No, today's not good. Tomorrow?"

... applying ruthless pressure...

"No, I'll be okay by then."

... inducing Gillian's wince.

"Lunch, I said. 'Speare's. I'll see you then."

She hands the phone to Morgan who hangs it up.

"Don't you think tomorrow's a bit too soon?"

"I don't see why; apart from here on up, I feel terrific. Do my neck?"

Gillian rolls back over onto her tummy. Morgan straddles her, rests his hips on hers, then wraps his hands around her nape—sensing its fragility, its dainty bones as breakable as a rabbit's.

"So what have they decided; who performs tonight?"

"It's Annie. No surprises there, except she's doing so on book. Rehearsed that girl for days—there never was a worst-kept secret—ought to have it down, by now."

"You worried?"

"No. She'll serve."

"About your being replaced, I mean."

"Oh, that. It's only temporary. I'll be back by Friday; are you kidding? We're a hit. Receipts are great. It's all arranged; they'll do a program insert. Then Friday, in a banner that will underscore our ad, the daily news will hail "GALLIPOLI'S RETURN!"

Morgan's sullen silence gainsays Gillian's forced bravado. Both are well aware that she needs more than four days rest. She turns. She spreads her arms. She beckons, with premeditated fawning, with a weakness only Morgan is allowed to see, to mend. Threatening his disinterest, she encroaches on the buffer that his wounded pride enforced when he suspected her of cheating; her kiss is urgent; his is automatic, numb, resigned... then disengaged, in the darkness of their bedroom...

 

... of the theatre, where each has come to watch the play, and Annie Pratt's debut, with blessings and distinctly mixed emotions.

MONICA

       "You've all had enough?! I beg you pardons. Oh, I do. I definitely beg your put-upon pardons. Jacob, please forgive me for my indiscreet hysteria. I know it must seem puerile to a high-brow prig like you."

Richard crosses (left). He puts his hands on Monica's shoulders.

RICHARD

       "Okay, Monica, calm down."

She jerks away.

MONICA

       "Richard would prefer to think I'm crazy. Wouldn't you, darling?"
(Annie steals a glance at the script in hand.)
       "That way I could be committed. They'd take away my baby. They'd zap my brain with drugs—or worse, electric shocks—nonstop; I wouldn't recognize myself; I'd be a whole new person, someone totally different from your frumpy, sullied spouse, puffed up with a rapist's unborn bastard."

Gillian mouths the words involuntarily.

"Maybe I'd be physically changed, as well. Maybe my behind would shrink, my boobs would swell. Eh, Richard? Maybe then I'd look like her, like Laura, Jacob's wife, and you could mate with me the way you did with her last summer—yes, I saw you!—in our basement, on a load of dirty wash."

Laura stands humiliated. Slandered? She looks innocent. Jacob, on the outside, keeps his placid cool in tact. Richard skulks to the upstage chair and sits, his back to the audience. Monica stoops, retrieves her sash and hoists it like a flag, marching (downstage right), as those behind her freeze.
(Annie reads her next lines directly to the audience—accompanied by the synthesizer's drone.)

       "Whoops. Was it something I said? I seem to have made a slight faux pas. What Monica doesn't know won't hurt her. Name that tune. Fidelity—he loves me. Infidelity—he loves me not. Fidelity—he wants me. Infidelity—he wants me not. The truth is I got raped because I got a little careless. Went out by my lonesome. To a seedy bar, no less.  A posy on a compost pile, I must have been in that place. Let these three studs chat me up. They bought me drinks. I drank. I drank and drank and drank... "
(Annie lowers the book and glares at a man in the front row.)
       "Stop smirking! How dare you laugh at me, you two-faced sexist. Is he your husband, lady? You let him play the field, while you stay home and iron? Or don't you do the ironing? Perhaps the title 'housewife,' these days, signifies a slur.  Well, I iron. I wash and cook and sew, too. And I like it. And I expect my man to 'bring home the bacon,' clich�s and all. And furthermore, I expect him to be faithful. Which is called trust. Do any of you remember trust? That's when one person makes a promise to another person and keeps it."
Monica lets this definition echo to 'the gods'—heightened by the music's sudden silence.
(Annie returns to reading.)
       "He made a promise. Broke it. Presto-change-o; end of marriage. How could one small lapse destroy a half a dozen years? Impossible. It did, though. Betrayal is like a claw; it reaches into a person's heart and scrapes until you're hollow. And once you're hollow..."

Faces, in the dim-lit house, are rapt...

... as Gillian's lips repeat the line (unvoiced) from where she sits...

(Annie's lips, on stage, transform... into Gillian's—role reclaimed; it is Friday night; the play goes on regardless.)

A shriek erupts; the synthesizer sounds a shrill alarm—that thaws the other characters into action.

Morgan, in the lobby, waits.

Hurst, just down from the booth, takes him aside.

"Aren't you going in?"

"How's she doing?"

"Great. Superb! We knew she'd pull us through, n'est-ce pas? A few days rest was all the woman needed."

Morgan, unconvinced, knows Hurst must paint the picture rosy—having overruled the theatre's doctor, Equity, and the Board. Gillian was pronounced unfit, a nervous breakdown imminent. The actor's union threatened intercession. Then the brass, none too happy anyway with Hurst's artistic 'vision,' cautioned him to "get things fixed" or willingly resign (compounded by his wife's pronouncement, two hours prior to curtain, she was suing him for divorce on grounds of "gross neglect").

"You shouldn't miss it, Morgan. They're really cooking."

"Unfortunately, I'm late for work already. Thought I'd just stop by and have a look."

"By all means, do. Have to run. Ta, ta."

Hurst takes his leave.

Morgan, indecisive, lingers... listens... inches forward. Words (their general shape, at least) pervade the double doors... with subtle swells of haunting music... silence... then a gasp. The scene has reached its darkest phase, in a play chockfull of darkness... as Morgan puts his palms against the panels... feels them vibrate... apprehends a rush of air on pushing... stepping through... knowing he will know, first glance, if Gillian's equilibrium is assured or in a shambles; he procrastinates... bows his head... discerns, instead, another gasp... anticipates the dirge ("Le Chant Diabolique," the actors call it)—grim, disturbing, prefaced by a mournful outcry—urging him to look; he does so with a disconcerted awe.

MONICA
(imitating a baby's wail)

       "Waaaaaaaaaa..."

RICHARD
(in a breathy whisper)

       "Ssssssssssex..."

LAURA
(mantra-like)

       "Mother, father, mater, pater, mother, father, mater, pater..."

JACOB
(clinically narrative)

       "... by which the labia are dilated to allow the forceps access to the fetus..."

Morgan backtracks... parts the doors... tiptoes through the lobby... exits...

... and arrives at The Golden Spur.

"Hey, Morgan. Why did God give women legs?" The questioner is Lem—his open shirt exposing three new chains. "Give up? So they wouldn't leave snail trails."

Lem guffaws, pounding on the table top, disturbing nearby pool balls; Cindy, cue in hand, delays her stroke.

Morgan, angling past them, simulates a smile... proceeds to the pit... screws in its overhanging light bulb... crosses to the cupboard for his vouchers, tip jar, shoe... piles them onto his chip tray... carries them back... sits down... redistributes whites, blacks, blues, and reds into equal stacks (each chip representing, in reality, almost nothing; each chip, in the realm of pseudo-gambling, having worth—pre-assigned, then reassigned, in a ploy to ward off pilfering)... stands back up... re-climbs the steps in search of a scrap of paper... tears a page from the pinned up pad that posts House's Rules (and prizes)... activates the amber searchlight (round and round it glares)... descends once more... resumes his seat, dead center, facing stage-ward... his movements crisp, efficient, as he opens four fresh decks and shuffles, with the cards face down, ensuring their concealment—despite there being no one there to peek).

Cindy's game with Lem has reached its end—or its beginning? Lem is on the prowl and Cindy flashes him a sign. He stalks his willing quarry to the offstage door, chin jutted, eager as a mutt to shove its muzzle up a rear—Cindy's well-proportioned, well-positioned as she pauses, hitches up her skirt, exposes kissing-cousin cheeks, then pilots Lem (off limits) into the dressing room.

Debbie, closely followed by Leanne, makes her appearance. Both don droll expressions as they note the clientele (or lack thereof), before proceeding to the bar—that Molly tends (with an air of imperturbable dispassion).

Once again, the front door yawns. Michelle peers in, retreating—hopeful that her getaway will elude...

"Michelle!"

Too late; Molly's summons brings her to a bitter halt. She loiters—loathe to face another cash-poor shift.

"Leanne, go get 'er. Chris wants all four girls tonight."

"Why me?"

Molly, unaccustomed to defiance, loses patience. Typically, she has 'the dirt' on those in her employ; it is the first thing that she excavates. Helene pushed dope (for Oscar); Bambi was a minor (with a stack of false ID); Caroline took narcotics (intravenously); as did Liz (who hid her works in a dildo); Angel (mum's the word) has clap; Brenda once was gang-banged (at the ripe old age of twelve); Rachel (six weeks pregnant) is adept at S&M; Michelle (for reasons yet unearthed) is touchy about childbirth; the list goes on and on, as long as the sorry string of dancers who have bared their bodies onstage and their souls (to Molly) off; Leanne, however, has yet to make disclosures.

"Debbie, you go. Hurry, before she gets away!"

Debbie has a thing (as she confessed one drunken night) for little boys (a useful lever, in the hands of her confessor), and though she, too, resents this go-for task, one look from Molly (who licks then sucks her pinky) nullifies resistance; she gives chase...

... while Morgan, pen in hand, inscribes a poem:

dressed to look undressed
these babes
whose faces mask souls absent
(with
puckers
sighs
seductive pouts
and bawdy winks
on tap)
are no less insincere
than glued-on lashes

why, then, do we pay them homage
tribute
obeisance?

why, then, do we flatter
falsely
camouflage contempt?

Debbie, with Michelle in tow, re-enters.

"See? She's here."

Michelle, evading Molly, makes a detour to the pit, and plops herself in a chair across from Morgan.

"Whatcha writin'?"

Legs akimbo, elbows planted, bosom bunched robustly (while chewing gum and making it go "SMACK"), Michelle inclines, trying to read his handiwork upside-down.

why, when they confront us
with our own depraved reflections,
is it them
we claim to see
and not ourselves?

Morgan
(undated)

He caps his pen.

"A chronicle of my life in sin."

She squints at the uniform lettering. Morgan flips it over.

"Not for publication."

Michelle attempts to grab it, does, and, holding it aloft, reads aloud the phrases he enscribed:

"'Dressed to look undressed these babes...' What 'babes'? Do you mean us? Don't much care for that term; 'babes.' But how we dress is right."

Morgan lets her read without repeating his objection...

"'Whose faces...' What's this word; mark?"

... though he offers no assistance...

"'Mask'? 'Whose faces mask souls absent'?"

... preferring to affect an air of passive nonchalance...

"'With puckers, sighs, seductive pouts, and bawdy winks on tap.'" She pauses. "Does that mean men can order us like a drink or something? They can't, you know. We're dancers, not prostitutes."

... resisting the temptation to defend his purloined prose.

"'Are no less insincere than glued-on lashes.' Not too nice. You know what, Mister Dealer? You're a prick."

Holding out his poem as if the paper were contagious, Michelle gets up and drops in his lap... then struts away.

Morgan, in pursuit (intent on winning a retraction once his words are read in toto) has to halt outside the head.

Michelle confronts her wrath in the restroom mirror.

"That fucking SNOB!"

Leanne pops in.

"What's up? That cutie dealer make a pass?... Michelle?... You pissed, or what?"

"I'm pissed, alright."

"At what?" Michelle just glares. Leanne persists. "Come on, now; don't be so selfish. What he do, or say. Was it dirty?"

"Yes, it was, in fact. At least, it was to me. He said that men could buy us just like liquor."

"What a prick!"

"Same conclusion I reached."

They repeat the word in unison.

"PRICK!"

They laugh. Michelle calms down. Leanne is glad to be of help. In her opinion (widely held), Michelle has style, "integrity." Even Chris has said as much; "Michelle takes shit from no one"—his highest accolade.

"Will you let me buy you a drink, Michelle?"

"Sure. I'll be right out. You go on ahead."

Leeann departs. Michelle, still peeved, issues one last salvo of vexation.

Who's at fault if men can't see beyond a woman's outsides? Sure we bat our lashes. Sure we flirt; so what? Men love it. All it means to us is absolutely nothing; men love 'nothing'—as long as it's their own idea of nothing. As long as it's attractive, dressed in heels and zippered bras. Women don't need zippers in their bras, for Chris'-sake; men do. Zippers free their pricks, so they're symbolic, stand for hard-ons, remind the boys of jerking off—in lieu getting laid. They're the ones whose souls are absent. They're the ones to blame.

Michelle steps into a stall and flushes the toilet. Hiking up her skirt she pulls her underpants down, then squats, directs a squirt of urine (poorly aimed through want of pubic hair), tears a wad of tissue, wipes herself, and then the seat, readjusts her street clothes, takes a whiff of either armpit, runs her tongue across her teeth (erasing lipstick traces), steps back out, regards herself (with a shrug of discontent), and ventures from her females-only refuge...

... stopping short; Morgan, poem in hand, obstructs her path...

"You didn't finish."

... his attitude insistent...

"You have to read it all."

... afraid his words have been misconstrued...

"Reading half a poem is like a joke without its punch line."

... hating to be judged by her unfairly...

"Take it. Please?"

... persuading her, at last, with his plaintive tone.

Michelle accepts the piece of paper, folds it several times, frisks herself for a pocket, finds none, opts for her brassiere, and wedges it between the size-D cups.

"I'll read it later."

Morgan, un-absolved, returns to the pit.

 

 

obeisance...

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